Research Sunday: The Danger of Decentralizing for Minority Voices

Now that Finals are done (Woo hoo!!!), I’m turning my attention to my (ever so severely) neglected Research Assistantship duties. My PI (Private Investigator–my boss), is trying to argue that local science is a community resource and–as such–should be freed from the constraints of tenure and the other academic incentives.

Anyway, during my research, I came across a compelling tangent: when a government decentralized control over a forest, the high-powered groups benefited.

First, some background: Eleanor Ostrom is a nobel-prize winning economist who studied how communities protect–or not–communal resources (like forestries, fisheries, open grazing grounds, Congressional budgets…). Usually, individuals use up communal resources in an unsustainable fashion (over fishing, etc) She argues that, traditionally, we use two solutions to protect communal resources: the government limits access to the resource or private companies limit access. Either way, it’s an external limitation imposed on the people actually using the resource. The problem is, that since they’re outside, they don’t have accurate information and tend to make mistakes in administering the system. She argues that it works better when the users themselves enter into a communal contract to monitor use and limit consumption themselves.

And for the most part, it DOES work better. But later one of her students, Anderson, was studying two Bolivian cities who reorganized their corrupt handling of Forestry conservation. They both decentralized control of the forest to the users. In one town, it worked extremely well–violence ended, illegal cutting disappeared and new markets opened up. In the other town, decentralization made everything worse. One very powerful company was able to monopolize the negotiations and walked away with de facto control over the forests. They steamrolled all the other less powerful constituents which wasn’t possible (or at least as easy) when the government controlled the forests.

I am a firm believer in giving control to the people. Not just electoral power but administrative power too. I believe that people on the ground have better information, more timely information, and incentive to create a really good, fitting solution. And then when they DO find a solution that works, they generally are much more committed to upholding the solution because they have “bought in” to it. Furthermore, a multiplicity of perspectives generally generates a better solution than a homogenous perspective.

HOWEVER, there appears to be a problem with giving power away to the people. The problem is that more powerful groups can over-run less powerful groups. Groups who enjoy white-privilege for instance, may be able to create a system which perpetuates their privilege over minority voices. This is why we have institutions to help minorities get into school and into jobs. It’s the best way we’ve found to make sure their voices are protected. We limit one group’s influence to make sure they don’t take over the communal resources. To make sure the negotiation power of minority groups stays intact.

Still… I can’t help but wonder if there is a better way. Is there a more equitable way to negotiate over common resources? Or are we too human to allow it? Perhaps it require too much understanding and love for our fellow humans. Perhaps there isn’t enough incentive to overcome our naturally self-interested tendencies.

On the other hand, maybe we could find that incentive…..

Andersson says (in setting up his research parameters), “We assume that a governance system that manages to distribute capabilities and duties in such a way that perverse incentive and information problems at one level are offset to some extent by positive incentives and information capabilities for actors at other levels, will achieve better outcomes than either a highly centralized or fully decentralized system” (p. 73). In other words, what a President Wilson called “a community of power” rather than fully decentralizing the power.

Tell me what you think that would look like in the comments below!

PS: If you want to look up the articles, here are the citations:
Andersson, K. & Ostrom, E. (2008). Analyzing decentralized resource regimes from a polycentric perspective. Policy Sci.

Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action (Chapter 1). Cambridge University Press.

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